A mass grave with remains of around 800 babies and children was discovered at a former home for orphans, unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland on Friday.
When the mother and baby homes commission excavated at the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, they found an underground structure divided into 20 chambers containing "significant quantities of human remains".
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According to their analysis, ages of the deceased range from 35 weeks to three years old. The deceased were buried in the 1950s, when the home was still open to orphans, unmarried mothers and their children before closing in 1961.
"Radiocarbon dating of the samples recovered suggest that the remains date from the time frame relevant to the operation of the Mother and Baby Home," the commission said. "A number of the samples are likely to date from the 1950s."
Unmarried mothers could visit the place, where they were separated from the child. The child would be raised by a nun until adoption. The women could leave after a period of involuntary service and penance.
In 2014, the Irish government formed the commission after a local historian, Catherine Corless, found death certificates of nearly 800 children who lived at the home but burial records of only two.
The discovery on Friday confirmed decades-long suspicion that most of the children who died there were put in unmarked graves, reportedly a common practice at Catholic-run facilities.
"Everything pointed to this area being a mass grave," Corless previously told the Guardian. In the mid 1970s, some boys playing in the field had reported seeing a pile of bones in a hidden underground chamber, she added. Through her research, she found that many of the children died in the home and were probably buried in a septic tank.
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Katherine Zappone, Ireland's minister for children and youth affairs, said that the children's families would be consulted over proper burials.
"We will honour their memory and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately," Zappone said.
The commission said it was "shocked" by the discovery and "is continuing its investigation into who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way."
The Bon Secours sisters said they were "fully committed to the work of the commission regarding the mother and baby home in Tuam. . . . On the closing of the home in 1961, all the records for the home were returned to Galway County Council, who are the owners and occupiers of the lands of the home. We can therefore make no comment on today's announcement, other than to confirm our continued cooperation with and support for the work of the commission in seeking the truth about the home."